The coming chaos: Mcebisi Jonas on growth, jobs and the lack of national obsessions

Former deputy minister of finance Mcebisi Jonas testifies at the commission of inquiry into state capture. (Deaan Vivier/Gallo Images)
Former deputy minister of finance Mcebisi Jonas testifies at the commission of inquiry into state capture. (Deaan Vivier/Gallo Images)

It's becoming common cause, but South Africa cannot afford to delay making the big decisions any longer. But, Mcebisi Jonas, who was fired as deputy minister of finance by then president Jacob Zuma during the height of state capture, tells Pieter du Toit, it's too early to judge President Cyril Ramaphosa.

South Africans and the country's politics tend to be focused on personalities and individuals, and, says Mcebisi Jonas, the former deputy minister of finance, not enough emphasis is placed on systems, structures and underlying problems.

It follows then that Jonas, 59, who was fired from National Treasury by then president Jacob Zuma on March 30, 2017, is reluctant to talk about personalities during an interview with News24 earlier this week.

"It's too early to judge President Cyril Ramaphosa," he ventures. He has just published a book, titled After Dawn: Hope after state capture, in which he details the reasons behind the country's current travails while at the same time offering a set of solutions to lift it out of the rut.

Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan has hailed

Jonas, who sat very near the top of the totem pole at National Treasury's headquarters on Church Square in Pretoria, knows very well how the structure and systems of politics and government work. And his experience has shown him precisely how things should not work.

He's a systems and process guy, and what we have now is not working – and it's constraining Ramaphosa from doing what must be done.

"The president must utilise the skills he learnt when he was with the trade unions and during the negotiations to build consensus. He needs to move the debate along and we as a nation must up our game. Look, our fiscal situation is dire and Ramaphosa needs to communicate that to the rest of the country.

"When there's low or no growth it impacts on government revenue. And that's when the pressure starts to build because it forces government to consider expenditure: do we take money away from social grants or infrastructure investment or whatever. For Ramaphosa, it's a difficult environment to be in, a place where populism is on the rise," Jonas says.

Jonas and Pravin Gordhan, who was minister of finance at the time, were at the forefront of defending the country's fiscus against capture and corruption before their dramatic dismissal a little more than two years ago. Zuma's decision to let go of any pretence and directly attack Treasury was the culmination of the project of grand corruption which saw institutions, government departments and arms of the state repurposed in service of the project of state capture. And Treasury was the last bastion.

In After Dawn Jonas is critical of the political system in general, and the ANC in particular. He argues that our parliamentary system is losing its legitimacy because of the increased voter apathy, a pattern which has ensured that election outcomes since 1994 have remained largely stable and unchanged.

The ANC, Jonas says, is a party suffering from an existential crisis which it is going to have to face if it's going to survive – and even if it does, Jonas is unconvinced that the governing party is salvageable. At his book launch on Tuesday evening at Hyde Park Corner in Johannesburg – Jonas said the resistance inside the ANC against state capture was more about saving the party than saving the country.

His statements were received with a mix of groans and applause from the audience, which included a host of former Treasury staffers, including Gordhan, former director general Lungisa Fuzile as well as SA Reserve Bank heavies Lesetja Kganyago (governor) and Kuben Naidoo (a deputy governor).

He seemed to backtrack a little bit when talking to News24, saying that despite the "serious crisis" the ANC finds itself in, the party "still has a lot to offer".

"There certainly is a lack of focus in the ANC and it is beset by disunity. Even the battle with the Public Protector (Busisiwe Mkhwebane is involved in perpetual litigation with Ramaphosa and Gordhan, among others) is reflective of internal problems.

"What is needed in the party is boldness. And yes, that boldness does exist. Ramaphosa knows what must be done and he is going to have to do it, and soon. But we mustn't fall into the trap that in our desire and urgency to make big changes we don't follow the law and processes. When forcing change we must stick to the Constitution."

Political parties, chief among them the ANC, exist so that they might achieve power at all costs. They don't exist to exercise political power in service of the citizenry, he argues in After Dawn. And the relentless pursuit of power and expansion of patronage networks happens "under cover of a false authority derived from being a 'liberation movement'… this mythology allows it to assert moral leadership," he writes.

The political system is broken, Jonas tells News24, and the 1994 consensus is unravelling, which was premised on growth, an effective state and a generous society.

Don't bet on the ANC making the necessary reforms and changes, Jonas says. He argues that the head of state – Ramaphosa in this case – needs to understand that the president in reality "is bigger than the party" and that he should act that way. There's a belief that once the leader of the ANC ascends to the position of head of state, he remains just that – party leader.

But Jonas would want to see the political system reformed to such a degree that whomever is president derives his or her mandate from the electorate. Does that mean a directly elected president, rather than the present party list system? "Look, we need to have a new dialogue on the matter. It cannot be that we as citizens must always be indebted to 'the liberators'," says Jonas.

He is still a member of the governing party even though he has largely dropped off the political radar since his dismissal by Zuma, with his name at one stage being mentioned as a possible commissioner of the SA Revenue Service. He is also one of Ramaphosa's investment envoys, travelling the world to sell the country to prospective investors.

Ramaphosa's critics contend that he is constrained by internal ANC politics and conference resolutions and that it will always prevent him from acting in the national rather than party interest. Jonas says party resolutions must be taken into account but that the Constitution trumps everything.

The president however, notwithstanding what the ANC decided at their conference in 2017, will have to face up to pressures like rising unemployment and low growth and he simply must take decisions to ameliorate that. "We're not far from chaos or intervention by institutions from outside bodies like the International Monetary Fund. We need to use the opportunities that we have now effectively to create an environment conducive to investment," he says.

He doesn't say it, but it's patently obvious from his book and in conversation that the ANC's mantra of party uber alles is the biggest brake on Ramaphosa and government. Ramaphosa cannot do what he wants because half the reforms necessary to improve government's fiscal position and stabilise its balance sheet run contrary to party ideology and convention.

"The political system constrains government… it constrains society to rally around a common vision," he says. "The president needs to push us into a direction where can have a single focus on growth and investment and jobs. I mean, we at the very least need consensus on how to improve economic growth…"

There will be resistance to the reforms that Jonas believes are necessary. These reforms include a radical re-think of state-owned companies (do we need all of them?), a reform of the labour regime (is the current system functional?) and education (he calls it South Africa's "greatest embarrassment"). But there's no way to dodge it anymore: "We can't afford to muddle along."

"Society must be made to understand the dire fiscal situation we're in," says the former deputy finance minister, someone who until very recently had direct access to the national accounts.

"And there will be fightback. But we must explain that there must be pain before we will emerge from where we are. And it's also no use to create devils with horns out of established wealth… what is going to happen if established wealth decides to leave? We must create new wealth."

Economic policy is determined by the politics of the day and the personalities in charge. For Jonas there is nothing more frustrating than a short-sighted focus on personalities and factional political battles.

"I'm worried. We look at people rather than at structural problems. We need a national agenda. But we have nothing that binds us together as a nation, we have no national obsession, like growth…"

* After Dawn: Hope after state capture is published by Picador Africa and available at all good book stores. 

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